Last week the Australian directory publisher Sensis released its half-year financial results, ended Dec. 31, 2009, which showed pretty strong resilience but nonetheless a meaningful decline in print revenues. For the half-year period, combined print and online Yellow Pages results were down 4.3 percent. Print Yellow Pages declined 8.7 percent. Including White Pages, the print drop was 7 percent. White Pages (print and online) declined 3 percent.
These are declines that would be the envy of most global incumbent publishers, and in fact they are far better than what other traditional media peers have experienced in Australia. Newspapers, for example, declined 18 percent in the same period. But over the past few years, Sensis has been an industry beacon for sustaining print growth while so many other companies were seeing declines ranging well into double digits. The latest results raise the obvious question of whether Sensis is facing the same fate as its peers, albeit delayed a year.
We spoke yesterday with Sensis CEO Bruce Akhurst, who doesn’t believe the declines reflect a sudden secular shift, and he expects to see “a more stable selling environment” in 2010 than in 2009. Akhurst offered several explanations for the 1H 2009-10 drop, and for why he is confident that print will rebound.
Akhurst noted that the first half of Sensis’ July-June financial year features all its largest markets (including Sydney and Melbourne), which as in other global markets have often substantially weaker print performances than small town and rural directories. Second, Akhurst pointed out that sales canvasses for these books took place in the early part of 2009, when worry over the global financial crisis was at its peak.
Akhurst also cited cause for hope. “Our customer base has remained intact,” he said, adding that most of the decline came from advertisers pulling back, or failing to expand into new books and categories as in the past. In general, customers did not abandon the category. Akhust says Sensis has 600,000 advertisers.
Also, Akhurst said that while the financial crisis created an overhang of fear, the actual economy has not suffered very much, with unemployment around 4 percent. He believes an improving economy plus loyal customers suggests a rebound in White and Yellow print.
“The next canvasses will be very important to us,” Akhurst says.
Still, the company is making changes. First it is moving significantly this year from a product based to a “network based” sales approach, meaning Sensis will focus its sales messaging around lead-generation and ROI metrics, across channels. The company will still sell on a pay for inclusion basis. Akhurst does not see pay for performance or performance guarantees anytime soon.
“It’s a continuation of a journey we’ve been on,” he said, noting for example the company’s dramatic increase in its commitment to call measurement a few years ago. The completion of the journey to the “network” approach depended on launching a new generation Amdocs publishing system, which went live in October.